Do rats chase chocolate in your museum? Thoughts on organisational habituation.

Posted on May 22, 2012

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Ed Rodley’s thought experiment on making a museum from scratch has only just started, but the responses to his initial post are provocative. Almost all of them question Ed’s initial assumptions about the scope and definition of the problem. After setting some conditional ground rules for the museum (it has about 200,000 objects, you have an old building in which they can be housed, and a big enough budget to get started, but you’ll need to be judicious with hiring etc), Ed’s starting place was the collection. He asked “Who are the audiences for this material and what are their needs?”

Instead of answering this question, however, almost all of the commenters have problematised the starting place of the inquiry. Why does this need to be a museum? If it is a museum, does the building necessarily have to be used for display? What kind of baggage comes with the collection that necessarily has to be dealt with before the museum can move forward? What is the museum’s mission, and how early into the process of creating the museum does it need this to be defined? Already the exercise has really brought home to me both the complexity of starting a project like this, and just how many assumptions we carry with us about museums. It has almost certainly brought such questions home to Ed too, since his second post seeks to address many of these questions.

But while I was thinking about this, a friend linked to a fascinating if slightly old article from the New York Times that explores consumer behaviour and the ways that companies target consumers. Amongst other things, it addresses the way behaviours become habituated and ingrained:

An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

It seems to me that right now, all of us who are participating in Ed’s thought experiment are like the rats with overstimulated neurosensors, trying to make sense of the maze of questions and possibilities of a new museum. We know there is a reward at the end (chocolate!), but the path to that reward is anything but clear. We are scratching at the walls, and trying to work out where the edges of the maze are. We are most engaged with the puzzle and most able to find new solutions.

But if this was a real situation, it likely wouldn’t be long before our behaviours habituated, and the thinking process was short-cut. In order to progress and move forward with the business of running a museum, rather than trying to solve every puzzle that comes up along the way to building a museum from scratch, there would surely be less and less opportunity for deep thinking and questioning of assumptions. As things progress, our organisational processes and behaviours become ingrained. They require less thought and make action faster. They are known and therefore likely safe. As a survival tactic, habituating behaviours make sense.

This is also likely one reason that museums continue to be modelled on similar ideas from one to the next. Doing so means that these difficult discussions that question every assumption can be circumvented. Rather than waging a near-constant intellectual battle, the business can pick a few key questions to concentrate on, and rely on habits and experience for the rest. But this also means that the process takes less thought and the outcomes are less likely to be substantially different from those that have come before. Is this why many museums fall back to default methods for dealing with their collections and publics? Is this why it is so hard to really challenge many of the ingrained organisational habits found in museums (or any business that accompanied by a legacy of tradition)? And if so, is there an alternative that might help staff within a museum find a balance between habits and critical thought?

Nina Simon just wrote a post about building a culture of experimentation in which staff are experimenters who are “driven by the desire to try things out and see what works, to collect data, to learn from the results.” In describing what such a culture looks like, she writes:

Whenever an intern takes a prototype out on the floor, I ask her, “What might change about this project based on this test?” If she is not willing or able to articulate a potential change, it’s not a prototype—it’s just a model of a foregone conclusion. At the MAH, prototypes have to be used to test a hypothesis, or to decide among options. This becomes more and more automatic as people feel the confidence that comes with making a decision based on data instead of arbitrary soothsaying.

Essentially, it seems like what Simon is trying to encourage experimentation to become the habituated and ingrained path, rather than outlier behaviour that only occurs when a new maze needs to be mapped or puzzle solved. I wonder whether it is possible to really make critical engagement and experimentation the habituated path across an organisation? What would make that happen? Other behaviours and habits would need to be effective in their automation, so that staff could rely on them and not have to be engaged with thinking through every action (which would be simply exhausting). So is it about getting the right balance?

What do you think? How hard is it for organisations to question their own assumptions and engage with ideas that could lead to new and more effective modes of doing business? Is this why the museum tech sector is so filled with conversation, because the changing landscape has meant that our behaviours and attitudes are not yet ingrained?